Do we need a Black British Museum?

Dear Sandra: The question highlights a significant void in our national institutions that has resulted in highly fragmented and partial …
Sandra Shakespeare; Laura Elliott
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Dear Sandra:

The question highlights a significant void in our national institutions that has resulted in highly fragmented and partial historical narratives that continue to shape ideas of British history and identity in very distorted ways. A Black British Museum would be a corrective and catalyst for wider sectoral change.
It would serve as a centre to gather material evidence and research, while also attending to the ways in which black British identities have been represented and circulated. That said, it might also risk being seen as adjunct, rather than belonging to the national story.
Best wishes, Laura

Dear Laura:

Access to collections is imperative to our understanding and enjoyment of black history. Museums face the challenge of presenting the “right” collective history, as we bring our own stereotypes and biases into the equation.
In this context, a Black British Museum is an opportunity for developing critical analysis and public history teaching. National investment in funding for the advancement of academic research in black historical collections is vital. Now is the time for conversations with museums and government, to gain support for the idea.
Best wishes, Sandra

Dear Sandra:

That kind of support will be vital to establish a Black British Museum and it will also help ameliorate the “adjunct risk”. I like the idea of drawing on loaned objects from different institutions, and to research and exhibit them on a circulatory basis.
It could strengthen and grow the expertise and economy of the Black British Museum, and tangibly benefit existing museums that have black history collections but are unsure what to do with them. What other institutions are doing similar work, if any?
Best wishes, Laura

Dear Laura:
Museums have a global responsibility to understand their collections more fully, to tell the stories of people, culture and communities behind the objects. An example is the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) Maqdala 1868 collection of Ethiopian treasures, now held across several British cultural collections.
There are also the Benin Bronzes at the British Museum and the exemplary work of the former curator of the Africa collections, Chris Spring. There’s a hugely contentious restitution debate following the report commissioned by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron. A Black British Museum needs to think intelligently about the objects and collections it seeks to exhibit and display. What can we do differently?
Best wishes, Sandra

Dear Sandra:

Thinking about these overseas connections, a Black British Museum wouldn’t necessarily need to hold only national material any more than our national institutions do. Many museums mainly contain objects representing overseas cultures. It’s always going to be a work in progress because there is a fluidity of cultural influences that runs through this country. We are not fixed to any single identity.
This may seem to contradict the idea of a Black British Museum that foregrounds black identity, but it’s an inclusive and fluid identity; just as the Jewish Museum London is for everyone, so would a Black British Museum be. It would be a growth point for reassessing British identity, which has universal significance. What is next?
Best wishes, Laura

Dear Laura:

The discussions at the MA Conference with Errol Francis, Janet Browne and Arike Oke offered new thinking: maybe Black British Museum gallery spaces should be designed in new museums. National museums can reveal more black historical collections for wider scholarly research.
We are continuing the conversation and galvanising expertise. A working forum is assembled and we welcome more ideas for development of strategy. Expect a conference-type event in the future. We want this to be a museum that isn’t trying to fix colonialism. I look forward to the future.
Best wishes, Sandra
Laura Elliott is a museum consultant and subject specialist in museum modernisation. Sandra Shakespeare is an arts and heritage consultant and a co-founder of Museum Detox


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